The Wheel of Life

Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


In Polish: Koło Życia (Marek Murawski)
In Norwegian: Livets Hjul (Lars Olden)

Samsara is this world, filled as it is with so much pain and sorrow.  All beings in this world are subject to the law of karma. Karma means volitional act, that is, something you do, say, or think that is in fact in your control.  Any such act has moral consequences, called vipaka, which means fruit.  In traditional Buddhism, this consequences can occur in this life, or in a future life.

Most Buddhists believe in rebirth.  For many, rebirth is no different from what the Hindus believed, i.e. reincarnation or transmigration -- moving from one's old body at death to a new body at birth or conception.  A little more precisely, rebirth is nothing more than the transmission of one's karma.  Buddha likened it to the flame that passes from one candle to another.  So the idea of an immortal soul, a continuing personality, is definitely not part of the rebirth idea.

Rebirth and similar concepts are not a part of most westerners' cultures, so many western Buddhists, as well as some eastern Buddhists, take rebirth as a metaphor, rather than literally.  Buddhism has never been a particularly literalist religion, so this is not at all taboo.  In fact, Buddha often avoids discussing the reality of one metaphysical idea or another as irrelevant to the practice of the Dharma.

The image to the right is the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which represents Samsara.  In the very center, there is a rooster chasing a pig chasing a snake chasing the rooster -- craving, hatred, and ignorance.  Around that are people ascending the white semicircle of life, and others descending the black semicircle of death.  The greatest portion of the Wheel is devoted to representations of the six realms -- the realm of the gods, the realm of the titans, the realm of humans, the realm of animals, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the realm of demons -- each realm looked over by its own boddhisattva.  The outermost circle is the 12 steps of dependent origination.  The entire Wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death.


This is dependent origination, also known as conditioned arising, interdependent arising, conditional nexus, causal nexus....  It refers to the idea that, as long as we remain ignorant, clinging, and hateful, we will continue to create karma, and so continue to be reborn into this world full of suffering and pain.  It is described using the metaphor of a wheel of life, wherein one thing inevitably leads to another.

"All psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other..." which is what entangles us in samsara. (The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion)

1.  Ignorance (avidya).  "A" is ignorant of the dharma.  The blind man cannot see the truth

2.  Impulses (samskara).  "A" therefore has intentions (karma), good, bad, or neutral, and acts on them.  A potter creates a new pot from clay and water.

3.  Consciousness (vijñana).  These create a new conscious being, "B," who enters a womb.  A monkey, with no self control, jumps from one branch to another.

4.  Name and form (namarupa).  "B" takes form.  Three or four men in a boat:  The body is the vehicle that carries us through life.

5.  The six bases (shadayatana).  "B" comes into a world of objects ready to be experienced.  House with doors and windows:  The senses let in the world, like windows let light into a house.

6.  Contact (sparsha).  "B" has contact with that world of objects.  Lovers symbolize the intimate contact between world and mind.

7.  Sensation (vedana).  "B" has perceptions of that world of objects.  A man with an arrow in his eye:  Sensations can be so strong that they blind us to the truth.

8.  Craving (trishna).  "B's" perceptions give rise to desires.  A man drinking:  The promise of satisfaction only leads to intoxication.

9.  Clinging (upadana).  Desire leads "B" to cling to life, even at death.  Like a monkey clinging to a fruit tree, we cling to things.

10.  Becoming (bhava).  And another conscious being, "C," is begun. A pregnant woman:  A new life has begun.

11.  Birth (jati).  Thus, "C" is born.  A woman gives birth.

12.  Old age and death (jara-maranam).  And "C's" birth leads inevitably to his or her old age and death. An old man carries a corpse to its resting place.

And the cycle continues, one thing leading to another....


The Ten Fetters (Samyojana) bind us to samsara.

1.  Belief in a separate personality or individuality (drishti)
2.  Doubt that has no desire for satisfaction (vichikitsa)
3.  Uncritical attachment to rules and rituals (silabbata-paramasa)
4.  Sensuous craving (kama-raga)
5.  Ill will, wishing harm on others (vyapada)
6.  Craving for a higher material existence (rupa-raga)
7.  Craving for non-material existence (arupa-raga)
8.  Conceit or egotism (mana)
9.  Restlessness (udhacca)
10.  Ignorance (avidya)


Dharmas are the ultimate elements or particles of the universe .  A little like atoms, they are very small, but they exist for only a split second, in keeping with the doctrine of impermanence. And while atoms are purely material, dharmas include all phenomena, mental and physical.  I like to think of them as little flashes of colored light, and I would translate the word as scintilla.  Don't get confused between these and the Dharma, meaning the teachings of the Buddha!

Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Buddhists thought there were four basic elements:  earth, water, air, and fire.  The dharma theory turns these elements into qualities, or even verbs:  fire becomes hot becomes burning; air becomes cool becomes blowing....  Ultimately, then, all "things" are nothing more than bundles of these qualities or actions, and are "empty" inside.  This led to one of the most important ideas of the Madhyamaka School of Mahayana Buddhism:  Shunyata, which means emptiness.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the dharmas were considered something more like phenomena than atoms, and the Yogachara School took the change even further, and considered them something more like ideas in the universal mind.

The Skandhas

Skandhas or aggregates are the parts of the self.  Sometimes they are called the aggregates of attachment, which bring about suffering.  Just like a car is nothing more than the sum of its parts, so we are nothing more than the sum of our parts.  There is no atman, meaning soul, self, or ego, holding the pieces together.  Nevertheless, just like the car can run despite being nothing but a collection of pieces, so we can live as a person.

Traditionally, there are five skandhas:

1.  The body, matter or form (rupa).  Includes the body and the sense organs.

2.  Feelings or sensations (vedana).  Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, coming out of contact between sense organs and objects, plus out of the contact between mind (manas) and mental objects (ideas, images...).

3.  Thoughts or perceptions (samjña).  Recognition of objects -- form, sound, smell, taste, bodily impressions, mental objects.

4.  Will, mental acts, or mental formations (samskara).  Volition, attention, discrimination, joy, happiness, equanimity, resolve, exertion, compulsion, concentration, etc.

5.  Consciousness (vijñana).  Awareness prior to recognition -- seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, kinesthesia, ideation.

The last four are called naman, name, meaning the psyche. Namarupa (name-form) is therefore the buddhist term for the person, mental and physical, which is nevertheless anatman, without soul or essence.

Ayatana is the six fields of naman: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and mind, as well as the objects of these six senses.

The Yogachara school adds alaya-vijñana, a "storehouse" consciousness, similar to Jung's idea of the collective unconscious.  What is stored there are called bijas or seeds, which are inborn and result from our karmic history.  They combine with manas or ego-mind to form the illusion of ordinary existence.  By stilling mind, storehouse consciousness becomes identical with tathagata, "suchness," or the Buddha-mind.

Chitta means mind or consciousness.  In Yogachara, everything is ultimately chitta.  For this reason, Yogachara is also called the chitta-matra, "nothing but consciousness," or idealistic school.

For more original sutras on the nature of samsara, rebirth, and karma, please see the following:

Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Rahula, Walpola (1959).  What the Buddha Taught.  NY:  Grove Press.

Gard, Richard (1962).  Buddhism.  NY:  George Braziller.

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998).  Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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